To reduce teen suicide, cyberbullying, and substance abuse, a Los Angeles-area school district plans to monitor its students’ social media activity, raising privacy concerns among parents and students.
Glendale School District spent $40,500 to hire social media monitoring firm Geo Listening this fall after a successful pilot program last spring. Geo Listening operates a computer system that scans public posts made to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, blogs, and other sites for key words that indicate concerning behavior. Every morning, Glendale School District administrators receive a report with screen shots of flagged student posts and information about the student, time, and location of the post. Geo Listening is also looking for posts that depict “despair, hate, harm, vandalism, and truancy,” according to its website.
“We think it’s been working very well,” said Dick Sheeham, Glendale’s district superintendent. “It’s designed around student safety and making sure kids are protected.” The school district believes that by monitoring the social media activity of its 14,000 middle and high school students, it can engage teens on their own turf—the internet.
A 2013 Pew Research study found that 95 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds use the internet, 80 percent use social media, and 77 percent have a Facebook account. But the program monitors students’ activity outside of school, and some argue that oversteps the school’s role.
Geo Listening does not get a list of every student’s name from the district, but instead uses what it calls “deductive reasoning” to match social media accounts to the teens. It also only gathers public posts—information that anyone could find on the Internet—and does not monitor student’s private emails, texts, or phone calls.
Even so, the program makes privacy advocates nervous. ACLU attorney Brendan Hamme said the district’s program is “sweeping and far afield of what is necessary to ensure student safety.”
Some Glendale students are suspicious as well. “We all know social media is not a private place, not really a safe place,” said Young Cho, a 16-year-old junior at Hoover High School. “But it’s not the same as being in school. It’s students’ expression of their own thoughts and feelings to their friends. For the school to intrude in that area—I understand they can do it, but I don’t think it’s right."
The district PTA plans to address the social media monitoring program at its meetings this month, according to CNN. Sandy Russell, president of the Glendale PTA plans to ask a lot of questions: “When you find something you’re concerned about, what are you doing? Do you approach the child? With or without the parents?”
Though Geo Listening’s founder and CEO Chris Frydrych will not say how many schools the company currently has contracts with, he expects to be monitoring 3,000 schools worldwide by the end of the year.